Iran has remarkable historical sites, fascinating culture and wonderful people, but it was Iranian food that left an indelible impression. It is fair to say that our guide, Ali, loved his food and everywhere we went he sought out the best local delicacies for us. But, often we simply shared food with people at picnics in town squares or roadsides, in buses and trains, and even in the cabin of trucks! Iranians are not shy in initiating contact and won’t take no for an answer, so go with the flow and indulge in the original sharing economy.
Ali told us that a lot of independent foreign tourists, who can’t read Farsi menus, only eat kebabs for their entire trip because that is all they know how to order. What joys they are missing out on. One of the real plusses of having a guide was being able to find and eat a variety of different foods. Even better, most of the time we ate where locals ate. Food is extremely cheap in Iran, so it is a place where you can really indulge in great food all the time.
Here is our traveler’s guide to Iranian food with the culinary highlights from our visit.
Iranian Food Culture
Meals are traditionally served picnic style on a cloth or sheet on the floor or on a raised platform covered with carpets. Take off your shoes, sit on the floor, and dig in.
Lunch is the main meal in Iran and it is an extended affair with huge portions. You will get served a plate of rice the size of your head, and will encounter bafflement and concern if you cannot eat it all. Breakfast and dinner are much smaller affairs so it pays to get on this schedule in Iran. People who graze small meals all day may have a hard time adjusting.
Bread is one of the staples of Iranian cuisine and accompanies most meals. Iranian bread comes in gigantic flat sheets that you tear into sections to scoop up meat and stew. It is cooked in kilns over hot stones and has a slightly nutty flavor of whole grains. The best bread comes from hole-in-the-wall shops where sweating workers quickly flip dough in and out of the oven using long rods. It’s best hot out of the oven, but breakfast often consists of yesterday’s bread with jam and cream cheese.
Hot and Cold Food
Iranians have a notion of “hot” and “cold” foods that seems to be related to mental and physical well-being. Hot and cold relates not to the temperature at which food is served, but the nature of the food. Some foods are warm, some are cold, and some are neutral.
The idea is that all meals should have a balance of both to keep your body healthy. Too much cold or hot will put you in an imbalance and will make you ill. So, yoghurt and onions, which are cold foods, are often served with meat or chicken, which are hot foods. Ali leant over to another traveler who was eating two different kinds of melon. He quietly informed him he needed to eat some hot food pretty quick to avoid illness. Obviously, they take this seriously!
Picnics Anywhere and Everywhere
Iranians love their picnics and not just on a hot summer weekend. Everywhere we went, at any time of day (yes, even very late at night), Iranians grab a carpet and servings of their favorite food and find a place at a park, square, or side of the street to eat. If you do the same, you will be quickly invited to share dishes with nearby picnickers. Make sure you always have more than you need so you can share something too. This is an excellent way to get to try real home-cooked Iranian food. And, the perfect way to make new friends.
Can You Eat Fruit and Salads in Iran?
Typically, in Asia guidebooks advise you to avoid salads and unpeeled fruit, fruit juices, and street food. In Iran, it was safe to indulge and we did so without any ill effects. We found plenty of melons, apples, oranges, and delicious grapes in every town. Every hotel room in Iran has a fridge so you can stock up at local markets and keep fruit cool in your room.
The fruit juices in particular are not to be missed! A daily cold juice is absolutely essential in an Iranian summer. We found juice bars all over Iran. Our go to drink was the utterly delicious and refreshing green melon but we also had wonderful apple, watermelon, orange, and carrot juice (which locals typically drank with a huge dollop of ice cream added).
OMG! The Bam Dates!
There are plenty of dried fruits and nuts available in Iran too. The dates from Bam are heavenly! They are sweet, sticky, and burst with flavor. At $2 for a kilo, you can really get your fill. We always had a box with us for tasty snacks when on the road. If there is one thing we could import from Iran it would be Bam dates.
How will the Meat Eater Fare? And What About Vegetarians?
Vegetarians will have a hard time since most restaurants just don’t offer vegetarian main dishes. Meat stews are a significant feature of Iranian cuisine. The most famous dish is chicken fesenjen, a rich stew made from pomegranates and walnuts which was reminiscent of mole from Oaxaca, Mexico. Apparently, it is usually made at home but we found several restaurants that served it. Yellow pea, sabzi (mixed green vegetables), and aubergine stews are very common but vegetarians beware- most vegetable dishes are typically served with fat chunks of beef.
Dizi in Tabriz
Our first introduction to Iranian cuisine was in Tabriz after a beautiful morning at the troglodyte village of Kandovan. The main dish was called dizi, which is a slow cooked beef and vegetable stew. The dizi pots bubbled away on a coal stove in the center of the restaurant for 12 hours. We are not big meat eaters, but meat served like this is melt-in-the-mouth delicious. The liquid is poured into a separate bowl containing chunks of bread and when the bread is soggy you eat. The rest of the dizi is pounded in the pot until it is all mashed together and eaten with rice. Dizi is seen as peasant food. The peasants must eat well here!
Camel Stew: Surprisingly Delicious
You see lots of camels roaming around the desert in Iran, so it came as no surprise to find them in restaurants served in a stew! We approached camel meat with some trepidation since we expected it to be tough and gamey, however, it was soft and tender and tasted similar to beef. We had it served in herby stew with potatoes at the Silk Road restaurant in Yazd and at the Ateshooni homestay in Garmeh. Camel is considered to be very warm, so make sure you balance it out with heaps of yoghurt, onions, and salad.
Iranian Regional Specialties
We loved the fantastic butter-cooked spring chicken with pomegranate sauce served up in a small town in the Golestan region of North Iran. In Yazd, we devoured several bowls of the herby root vegetable soup called shuli. Other delights worth searching out are:
- Potato and egg wraps found on the streets of Tabriz
- Beef and parsley wraps in Tehran
- Falafels of Tehran
- Shirazi salad of cucumber and tomatoes, found throughout Iran
- Chicken tahchin (saffron rice layered with chicken and baked to form a crispy crust) in Esfahan.
And the humble kebab deserves a mention too. Try the kebabs cooked over coals in a side street just off the main square of Esfahan. They taste even better when wrapped in stone bread.
And, finally we get to desserts and sweets. Given that most Iranians have such enormous lunches and evidently a sweet tooth, it is amazing that the population is not hugely obese! Ali was very keen on showing off Iranian sweets and barely a day went by without him buying us a box of the best each city had to offer.
Our favorites were:
- Kolompeh (cardamom-walnut cookies filled with dates) from Kerman
- Tea with sticks of jaggery (hard palm sugar) to swirl in it at a vaulted teahouse in the market in Kerman
- Faloodeh (cold starch noodles in rosewater and lemon) from Shiraz
- Yazdi sweets (a variety of flavors but most reminded us of Indian sweets or Turkish baklava)
- Gaz from Esfahan (a pistachio laden nougat- go for no less than 38% pistachio for a real treat)
Iran: The Last Great Food Before China!
If, like us, you are heading overland from Iran to the Central Asian ‘Stans, then make sure you get your fill of the tasty delights on offer in Iran. The food in Central Asia invariably sucks! In Iran, it is easy to stick with kebabs in bread since both are so ubiquitous, not to mention delicious and filling. But you will really miss out. Menus are always in Farsi so you will need to find an English-speaking Iranian or use a phrasebook or Google Translate to help get the good stuff. Given the friendliness of Iranians, it won’t be tricky to find someone to help you.
If you have been to Iran, what were your favorite things to eat? What Iranian specialties are not to be missed? Let us know in the comments.